Rising sea levels threaten 200,000 properties in England

Rising sea levels threaten 200,000 properties in England


The decision was made not to try to protect Happisburgh in North Norfolk from sea level rise.

Nearly 200,000 properties in England may have to be abandoned due to sea level rise by 2050, a report says.

It looks at where the water will do the most damage and whether the defenses are technically and financially viable.

There is consensus among scientists that decades of sea level rise are inevitable and the government has said that not all properties can be saved.

About a third of England’s coastline will be under pressure from rising sea levels, the report says.

“It simply won’t be possible to maintain the line all along the coast,” says report author Paul Sayers, an expert on coastal flooding and hazards, adding that tough decisions will have to be made about what is realistic to protect.

“These are the places that we’re going to do, and these are the places that we’re not going to do, so we need this honest debate about how we’re going to do this and support communities where they’re affected.”

The study was published in the journal Ocean and Coastal Management.

What to protect?

Sayers’ report lists South West, North West and East Anglia among the parts of England with the highest number of properties at risk of flooding. Rising sea levels not only increase the risk of coastal and estuary flooding, but also accelerate coastal erosion through larger and more powerful waves.

The study looks for the first time at places where the costs of improving defenses can be too high or technically impossible. It was found that by 2050, assuming a conservative sea level rise caused by temperature increases of 2°C by 2100, up to 160,000 properties are at risk of needing relocation. This is in addition to between 30,000 and 35,000 properties that have already been identified as at risk.

“There’s no real engineering limit to how well we can protect ourselves, so for London, for example, the Thames barrier and all the walls and embankments, they continue to be raised in response to sea level rise.” Sayers explained to BBC News on Happisburgh Beach in North Norfolk.

“There will be no money under current funding rules to protect everyone.”

The Happisburgh Dilemma

Happisburgh, a quaint little Anglo-Saxon village with a distinctive red-and-white striped lighthouse, is unlikely to receive any more money for maritime defences. And its coast is already rapidly crumbling.

woman standing next to closed road sign

Bryony Nierop-Reading was once homeless from coastal erosion once

The land under Bryony Nierop-Reading’s bungalow fell into the sea in 2013 and there is now a safety barrier across the street that ends abruptly at the top of the cliff.

“Road Closed” says the red and white sign. On it are handwritten dates and numbers where, over the past six months, the 77-year-old has documented the retreat of the asphalt.

“Eight meters in December 2021 is 3.4 meters now,” she says with a sigh.

Bryony has good reason to monitor erosion. When her bungalow was demolished, she chose to climb just 50 meters up the road to a house that is also destined to collapse into the sea. “It will probably last until 2030,” she says.

Bryony does not accept the district council’s decision that Happisburgh should not be protected by new maritime defences. She points to a £20m off-shore project where large amounts of sand were dumped on shore to protect a gas terminal.

“It’s such a weak and unpatriotic attitude,” she says. “I think we should be saying that our country, our land, our farmland is important enough that we need to divert resources to it.”

Bryony launched an organization to try to attract renewed interest in some new maritime defenses.

“It’s the Save Happisburgh Action Group,” she tells me. “The name Shag makes people laugh, but a shag is a seabird that has to fight for survival against impossible odds. This is very fitting for Happisburgh.”


Bryony’s view is not universally accepted in Happisburgh. And hers isn’t the only campaign group.

Portrait of man sitting with the sea in the background.

Malcolm Kerby helped organize the “reversion” of homes at risk from the sea

“The sea is very powerful. Even more powerful than Boris Johnson,” says the booming voice of Malcolm Kirby, one of the founders of the Happisburgh Coastal Action Group.

Malcolm is 81 years old and has been involved in finding a solution to Happisburgh’s erosion problem for over 20 years. In 2009, he helped devise a government-backed “Pathfinder” project, whereby homeowners who were on the verge of falling overboard received government offers at market price and helped resettle further inland. He calls this “reversal”.

“Or you commit to spending billions over a long period of time,” he says. “Or you say OK, in light of what’s to come with climate change and sea level rise, we will do a properly managed retreat and take care of people as we go.”

Pilot project

Happisburgh’s Pathfinder project is now being seen as an example of how the rest of the UK can adapt. Along with East Yorkshire, North Norfolk has been chosen to be part of a £36m Coastal Transition Acceleration Program which will look at ideas such as establishing ‘green buffer zones’ between communities and facilitating ‘community managed transition from land to high risk”.

At the Happisburgh pub, owner Clive Stockton says the realization that the village will slowly fall into the sea casts a long shadow.

“Once the decision is made that there is no defense, all normal business transactions, whether business loans to companies or insurance, cease to exist,” he says.

“The problem doesn’t just start when properties start to plummet.”

Clive believes there is a middle ground and would like to see a mix of relocation and defense to slow the sea’s advance.

“The inevitable is long gone,” he says.

“Climate change has been created by the entire human race in the last 40 or 50 years. Why would a small proportion of people on the coast pay the price for it?”

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